Art Catch: “Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum: The Art of Appropriation”

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10/14/2008 9:30 AM |

In her weekly online column Art Catch, The L‘s Patricia Milder tells you which exhibits and dance shows are worth visually stalking. And which ones are simply not.

The art historian Leo Steinberg said of Robert Rauschenberg, "what he invented above all was…a pictorial surface that let the world in again." Expanding this idea in a number of directions both visually and conceptually is the exhibition "Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum: The Art of Appropriation," on view through November 10th at the Museum of Modern Art. Works from the museum’s permanent collection have been selected and hung in three adjoining galleries in order too narrate a history of appropriation that begins with Picasso and Braque, evolves through pop art and presumably ties together the lineage of contemporary artists such as Sherry Levine, Sigmar Polke and Richard Prince.

A clue to the overall appeal of this exhibition, which has many but
non-fatal curatorial flaws, lies in John Baldessari’s striking yet
unassuming 6 X 9 inch Untitled (1986), one of the finely layered works
on view. Baldessari selects a frame from found cultural ephemera (in
this instance, a 1970s film still) and then re-frames it (here with red
crayon, graph paper and pencil) to direct the viewer’s eye to certain
selections and comparisons. Placed in the physically third but
chronologically center gallery, this collage arrives in the context
designed by MoMA curator Connie Butler: it is part of an evolution
that begins with early Cubist collage, Dada readymades and the found
object and mixed media collages of Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch. Endless variations of that freedom are revealed, from Picasso’s first challenge to the idea of authorship and the hand
of the artist in Pipe Glass Bottle of Rum (1914), a charcoal drawing
with pasted-on newsprint. The
artists in this show use discarded materials, reproductions of fine art
objects, drawings of other artists’ works or studios and found media
materials to express endless varieties of conceptual intention.
Connections and associations between the works exhibited form an
interactive, multidimensional web. It is as if guests (be them people
or ideas) from the art world, art history, and the media — not to
mention the world at large — have been invited to a dinner party, and
everyone is talking at once. Despite Butler’s attempt at presenting the
big picture, you can only really listen in on one conversation at a
time. Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved (1965) is a small reproduction of
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with the letters L.H.O.O.Q. (in French
the acronym for "she has a hot ass"!) below. Duchamp echoes with
feminist undertones in Levine’s re-drawings of the drawings of Max
Fleischer, Egon Schiele and Kasimir Malevich that open the show. In
Untitled (almost original) (2006), the juxtaposition of a commercial
cowboy drawing and a Marlboro ad sans copy, Richard Prince utilizes
idea methods seen in previous rooms: Baldessari’s work done by other
artists’ hands, Duchamp’s readymades, even Kruger’s use of magazine
advertising images.

Two drawings by contemporary Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra, The New
Worshippers, I
(2007) and The New Worshippers, II (2007), depict
students sketching famous statues and paintings at the National Gallery
of Art in Washington D.C. The thread of appropriation is conceptual in
this work, not material. These are poignant critical statements about
the holiness of fine art, and the church-like quality of a museum, thus
following in a tradition so central to appropriation art. But if every
angle of appropriation fits in to this relatively small museum space,
then nothing really fits in very well. The curator’s all-inclusive
approach to technique and concept doesn’t serve the format: an
hour-long museum visit. The downside of this show’s abundance of
powerful imagery is the resulting extra wide through line that demands
every viewer see above and between the frames.